“People need to feel safe to be part of the conversation, and they don’t right now.”

Over and over in the last few weeks I’ve heard this statement. Each time I feel anger well-up. It is a huge indictment on the tertiary education sector that staff feel unsafe.

A lack of safety is what Scholars at Risk reports about Iran and Columbia, but not in a nation where academic freedom is written into law.

Teachers and unionists working in nations with military-led regimes (and you’ll read more about that in our later story) are the ones who lack safety, not those of us living in Aotearoa New Zealand where workplace democracy rights are set out in law.

A lack of safety does not sit well with demands for the tertiary education sector to be Te Tiriti o Waitangi led, or with the core mission of the tertiary education sector that is supposed to transform lives.

So, what has caused this chilling effect? Why don’t staff in the tertiary education sector feel safe to speak up?

Over the last decade we’ve witnessed a range of actions by leaders in the sector that have created this feeling of fear.

When staff satisfaction surveys are conducted, indicating for example that 57.7% of staff in the sector are experiencing diminishing satisfaction with their job and career, we see wounded leaders challenge the results. In one case, following an internal survey, a chief executive released the results saying, ‘there are lots of negative comments in this report, if you are that unhappy working here, there’s the door’.

During change management processes, the mere act of sharing news reports about job cuts on social media has had workers in universities hauled into meetings with their employer, and TEU has seen a range of members asking for support after being censured for speaking up about decisions made by managers in their institution.

Elsewhere, when there were staff op-eds published in a local or national newspaper, a former vice chancellor would ring the staff member and query why they spoke out publicly.

The creation of this chilling effect and fear of speaking-up is a well-documented phenomenon. Some senior managers have contributed to creating this chilling effect  in our sector, and that must end but it will take every one of us to fix this matter.

So on June 16 and 17 staff from the tertiary education sector have been invited to join TEU members at our TEU Academic Freedom Conference 2021. This is a very special invite to hear some analysis of the problem on day one, but then to be part of the solution on day two.

It’s time to exercise our muscle and reclaim the right to use and protect our academic freedom as stated in the Education Act 1989 on a daily basis.

Sandra Grey, TEU national secretary.

If you’ve not yet submitted an abstract for our TEU Academic Freedom Conference 2021 and you’re interested in contributing, there is still time. The Call for Papers closes, 23 April 2021. Visit here for more information.